The other day, I got sucked into watching a 2 hour special on Star Wars. It’s not something I would have turned to myself, but Josh flipped to it and we were both instantly captivated by the story behind the making of the first Star Wars. It chronicles George Lucas’s struggles to get the film made as well as all of the obstacles the film faced, how he went about casting (with some fun footage of various people, such as Kurt Russel, reading for the film).
Part of the show is intereviews with cast and crew members sprinkled throughout, highlighting some of the difficulties. In one part, the narrator mentions that sometimes difficulty lay in getting cast and crew to take the show seriously (the film was often thought of as a “kids” movie because of the content). They flash to an interview with Carrie Fisher in which she discusses how difficult it was to sometimes get the dialogue out. She mentioned particularly this line:
Princess Leia: Governor Tarkin, I should have expected to find you holding Vader’s leash. I recognized your foul stench when I was brought on board.
In the interview she said (paraphrase): Sometimes, you can type this stuff but you can’t say it.
Which leads me to blogging about dialogue. Not HOW to write dialogue that works but the importance of good dialogue. Dialogue can make or break not only a movie (remember my recent post on Casino Royale and how adversely the cheesy dialogue affected both Josh and I and our opinion of the movie?) but a book, as well.
I would say, in at least 75% of cases I reject a book, one of the main reasons is because I don’t buy the dialogue. It might be stilted, wooden, too flowery. Maybe the characters all have the same “voice” to their dialogue and it’s impossible to distinguish one character from another. Or possibly the characters (this is particularly true of male characters) have dialogue that’s completely uncharacteristic for a man.
In edits, it’s not unusual for me to leave comments about dialogue. Things like “this doesn’t fit with his syntax” or “he’s an FBI agent, I think it’s more likely he’s going to use the actual swear words” (unlike the heroine who says ‘dang’). In some cases of edits I’ve asked the author to make the distinction in character voices broader. Maybe they all use the same pet names, the same swear words and the same phrases and it needs to be better differentiated. It doesn’t help the reader get a sense of the characters if they all talk the same.
Dialogue is also important in not only selling the characters and helping the reader get to know them, but also because it can control the pace of the story and add appropriate emotion to the scene. If you’re in the middle of an action scene, you don’t suddenly want long monologues from the characters inserted. Instead, you want the dialogue to convey the tone of the scene–high paced, tense, suspenseful. The characters might speak in short sentences, be breathless, break off abruptly, stutter in fear.
At the same time, you don’t want your characters carrying on conversations that don’t really convey anything. I saw an interesting blog post on this a while back, about effective and meaningful dialogue (in the form of drivebys) that I decided to track down. I knew it was Paperback Writer and indeed, I found it here. In her post, she does a beautiful illustration of using dialogue to convey information in a way that’s not flat and boring. In the course of looking for this post on her blog, I also found this one, with ten links to resources for writing great dialogue.
Sometimes we can type this stuff but we can’t say it. For authors there’s both an advantage and a disadvantage to the fact that you’re writing a book. The advantage is that not many people are going to be reading your books aloud (the caveat to that is if you think your book is going to be a book on tape. Then, um…yeah, your dialogue is going to be read aloud and listened to), so what you can’t carry off in speech, you might be able to pull off in the reader’s head. But I still maintain that *most* dialogue should be something you’re comfortable reading aloud (something I sometimes recommend my authors do, as it’s the easiest way of demonstrating stilted areas). After all, you never know when you’ll find your book turned into an audio book 😉
The disadvantage is that there is no actor to sell your dialogue. There is only your writing, your words. In Star Wars, Carrie Fisher does a credible job of delivering her line. She makes the audience buy it. Authors have to do this job all on their own, there’s no Carrie Fisher to make the reader feel her scorn and disdain for the captain known. There’s only your words on the page. For this reason, creating dialogue that works is important to a book and can indeed make the difference between a letter of acceptance and a letter of rejection.